Recommended Films & Books

Films:

Juan Melendez – 6446

This documentary tells the story of Juan Melendez, who in 1984 was sent to Florida’s death row for the murder of Delbert Baker even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime. In 2002, he was released with all charges vacated after it was found that prosecutors had withheld critical evidence in the case. He became the 99th person exonerated in the United States since 1976, and the 20th from Florida.

Love Lived on Death Row

Love Lived on Death Row tells the story of the four Syriani siblings whose father was sentenced to die for the murder of their mother in 1990 and Meg Eggleston, who became their father’s friend and spiritual advisor through letters to him in prison. Orphaned and estranged, the Syriani children lived with hate, anger and confusion as the man they could only refer to as ‘Him Him’ lived on North Carolina’s death row. But in 2004 they collectively decided to visit him in prison, seeking answers so they could move on with their adult lives. What transpired that day was a miracle of forgiveness followed by a journey of healing, restoring family memories and then a battle for his clemency. Love Lived on Death Row’s portrait of a family torn apart by tragedy and reunited by another impending tragedy is a powerful examination of not only the healing process, but also of the role capital punishment plays in serving justice. 2007. 84 min.

At the Death House Door

Documentary about Carroll Pickett, Chaplain for the Texas Department of Corrections from 1982-1995 who counseled 95 inmates executed by lethal injection. It chronicles his experience counseling Carlos De Luna – widely believed to have been innocent – and tracks his transformation from supporter to opponent of the death penalty.2008. 95 min.

The Trials of Daryl Hunt

Documentary telling the story of a wrongfully convicted man who spent twenty years in prison in North Carolina for a crime he did not commit. 2006. 106 min.

The Thin Blue Line

Legendary documentary film maker Errol Morris uses reenactments, photo montages, film clips, and interviews to reconstruct and investigate the 1976 murder of a Dallas policeman and the subsequent arrest and sentencing to death of a man who claims to be innocent. 1988. 101 min.

Dead Man Walking

Although not the story of an innocent man, this film is often cited by people as the film that changed their mind on the death penalty. Sister Helen Prejean’s story mourns a nation determined to set an example of vengeance rather than compassion. 1995. 122 min.

Books:

Nonfiction

An Expendable Man: The Near Execution of Earl Washington, Jr. – Margaret Edds

Virginia has executed over 100 people since 1982 and exonerated only one. This book tells the story of how Washington, after 17 years on death row and coming withing nine days of execution, was freed by the Commonwealth of Virginia for a crime he had not committed. Essential reading.”Earl Washington’s story reveals the dark side of a system that is not known for admitting its mistakes. We have a lot to learn from this case, which highlights many of the problems we see over and over again in cases of wrongful conviction.” —Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chief sponsor of The Innocence Protection Act

“Margaret Edds’ book on Earl Washington shows the heavy handedness with which our society deals with those it deems expendable. It demonstrates how the politics of the death penalty skews our moral compass and how a small group of volunteers toiled for many years to set it straight for one expendable man. Whatever your position on the death penalty, if you want to know how it actually works, read this book.” —Sister Helen Prejean

Contact VADP at 1-800-567-8232 for a signed copy. Suggested $15 donation.

Dead Run: The Untold Story of Dennis Stockton and America’s Only Mass Escape from Death Row – Joe Jackson and William F. Burke, Jr.

A fascinating look inside Virginia’s death row from an inmate’s point of view. Dennis Stockton, once a pitcher scouted by the Yankees, found himself convicted on testimony, later recanted, from a highly dubious source and, while on the row, saw and recorded everything there was to see. Most improbably, the only successful mass escape from a death row in the country, and from a new state-of-the art facility, was organized around him and documented by him in his meticulous journal, which provides much of the material for this book. The dramatic events surrounding the break out and the troubled but fascinating personalities of his row-mates are described with great insight. A sad and compelling human story.

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty – Scott Turow

As the title suggests, the author recounts his experiences in the court room and on the Illinois commission to study the death penalty. A short but very thorough look at capital punishment through the eyes of an expert – one who remained conflicted over the issue for much of his career. Turow convinces us by sharing the same wisdom that convinced him that capital punishment is too flawed to be fair and constitutional. One is reminded of CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” as an example of a storyteller giving his devotees a brief notion of his non-fictionalized perspectives. Of course, Lewis had not turned the corner on the death penalty in his time, but one must assume that, should he lived longer, he surely would have.

The Innocent Man – John Grisham

Amazon.com Review
John Grisham tackles nonfiction for the first time with The Innocent Man, a true tale about murder and injustice in a small town (that reads like one of his own bestselling novels). The Innocent Man chronicles the story of Ron Williamson, how he was arrested and charged with a crime he did not commit, how his case was (mis)handled and how an innocent man was sent to death row. Grisham’s first work of nonfiction is shocking, disturbing, and enthralling–a must read for fiction and nonfiction fans. –Daphne Durham

Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas – Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson

It is an undisputed fact that Chris Thomas was guilty of participating in a brutal double homicide. He was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents in November of 1990, was sentenced to death in November of 1991, and was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia in January of 2000. Chris Thomas was one of the last juvenile offenders to be put to death before the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In Anatomy of an Execution, Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson tell the entire story, shedding light on issues surrounding the death penalty–such as the quality of court appointed counsel, the execution of juveniles (from both a constitutional law and public policy perspective), conditions of confinement on death row, and the role of spiritual advisers during the last days of the condemned. While providing insight into the legal workings of the modern death penalty system, the book also offers a rare glimpse of a young, condemned man’s life before and after the crime: a childhood ravaged by loss and neglect, a toxic first love, the brutal murders, trial and sentencing, and, ultimately, a chance at redemption. This is not an effort to excuse a crime but an assertion that even a murderer’s life is worth more than its worst act.

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green – Thomas Cahill

“Dominique Green was a wonderful man whose life demonstrated the power of God to heal and transfigure even the most unlikely people and places. Who could have expected that Texas Death Row would be made into an avenue of divine grace?—which is exactly what happened through Dominique’s instrumentation. Though this is a book that ends in death, it does not end in despair. Read it and discover how even the obscenity of capital punishment can be transformed into an occasion of light and peace.”
—Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa

Death At Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner – Donald A. Cabana

“How insane the whole process seemed! I knew this man, I believed his life was worth saving. I had argued so forcefully to the governor. Even though he was privately sympathetic, legally and politically there were no grounds that would allow him to justify commuting Connie’s death sentence.As I looked on, I thought if what Americans want from executions is vengeance and retribution, let them witness what I was about to do. I was not forgetting the victim of Connie’s crime or his family. My heart ached for the wife who was made a widow, and for the children who were left fatherless, by a single act of greed and selfishness. Nor was I oblivious to the need for society to achieve justice. But I questioned how an execution would end the lifelong pain and suffering endured by the victim’s family. Killing Connie Ray Evans would not bring his victim back from the grave. Perhaps it would affor domw temporary measure of satisfaction to the widow and her children, but the hurt and pain would never be completely eradicated, not even by the execution of a lonely, frightened, and – yes – remorseful young man.” – from Death at Midnight

Fiction

The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Just think: take, for instance, torture: you get suffering, wounds, bodily agony, all of which distracts the mind from mental suffering, for up to the very moment of your death you are only tormented by your wounds. Yet the chief and the worst pain is perhaps not inflicted by wounds, but by your certain knowledge that in an hour, in ten minutes, in half a minute, now, this moment your soul will fly out of your body, and that you will be a human being no longer, and that that’s certain – the main thing is that it is certain. Just when you lay your head under the knife and you hear the swish of the knife as it slides down over your head – it is just that fraction of a second that is the most awful of all. Do you realize that it is not only my imagination, but that many people have said the same? I am so convinced of it that I will tell you frankly what I think. To kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the crime itself… Why this cruel, hideous, unneccessary, and useless mockery? Possibly there are men who have sentences of death read out to them and have been given time to go through this torture, and have then been told, You can go now, you’ve been reprieved. Such men could perhaps tell us. It was of agony like this and of such horror that Christ spoke. No, you can’t treat a man like that!”- Prince Myshkin

The Last Day of a Condemned Man  – Victor Hugo

Exactly what the title implies, this is a brief first-person account of the emotions and thoughts of a man on the day he is to go to the guillotine.

The Analects (XII, 19) – Confucius

Killing not to be talked of by rulers; the effect of their example.

Chî K’ang asked Confucius about government, saying, “What do you say to killing the unprincipled for the good of the principled?” Confucius replied, “Sir, in carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good. The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass. The grass must bend, when the wind blows across it.”